Author: Patricia Birley, March 10th, 2023

Finding the first Vindolanda Writing Tablet: A personal recollection.

The winter of 1973 was particularly harsh with tremendous snow falls that left Robin and I, and the occasional excavator/friend, marooned in Codley Gate farmhouse next to the site at Vindolanda.

Codley Gate, now (pictured below) a posh holiday let and so vastly upgraded, was at that time our home and also excavation Head Quarters. 

It was something of a relief when spring finally arrived enabling Robin and I, plus occasional ‘old hands’ – experienced volunteers – to start preparing the site for the main excavation season which was due to start in April.

Robin immediately went back to a deep section excavation that had been mothballed from the previous autumn. This excavation was recovering wood, leather and textiles from anaerobic (oxygen free) levels.

On the morning of Friday March 23rd, one of the excavators passed an oily looking fragment of incredibly thin, dark wood to Robin with the comment that it looked as if there was something on it.

Robin gently ‘peeled’ the wood apart and to his astonishment thought he could see what looked, in his words, like hieroglyphics. It was quickly realised that this could be Roman cursive script but it hardly seemed possible.

The following day, on the advice of Prof Eric Birley, Robin and I went to see Richard Wright (Durham University) who had agreed to have a look at the wood. I sat with the box containing the fragment floating in water from the dig, desperately trying to keep it level while Robin negotiated the winding country roads to Durham. When we opened the box for Richard the wood looked almost black with nothing of note visible.

We were dismayed but Richard suggested that Robin take it to Alison Rutherford, an experienced infra-red photographer at Newcastle University School of Medicine where it was hoped that any carbon based ink script might be revealed.  Meanwhile, and now knowing what to look out for, more suspected ink tablets were discovered.

It was a magical moment when a few days later, Alison’s photograph of the first tablet revealed the ink script which was the now famous socks and underpants letter.

Within weeks the process of finding tablets during excavation was refined by Robin, Alison continued her photography and the fragile fragments went to The British Museum who very kindly undertook the conservation of the first few ink tablets.

I have been so privileged to have conserved most of the Vindolanda tablets found in the last fifty years, many of which are far more important in content than the first, but nothing can compare with the excitement of that first hectic weekend in March 1973 which started the incredible journey of discovery that continues to this day.